"Linux Gazette...making Linux just a little more fun!"

Linux: For Programmer Only--NOT!

By Mike List, troll@net-line.net

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a computer repair shop, trying to get a deal on some hardware. The owner was trying to sell me on how cool Win95 is. I told him I run Linux, then gave him the same hard/soft sell I give to every one that I think might have use for Linux. I'm just a glutton for punishment that way. He looked at me blankly, and said Unix is a programmer's OS and it's not good for the average user. My turn to look blankly, "Apparently that means that MS is an illiterate's OS, and not good for the educated user". I didn't say that but I thought it very loudly, and the conversation was over....

I should have been more understanding of his attitude. Part of the reason that Linux hasn't become more mainstream is the belief that you must be a highly trained programmer to make it run. That simply isn't the case.

I hope to dispel some of this notion by pointing out my personal experience with Linux. I am not a programmer, I can barely write a good shell script, but I am happy as a clam with my Slackware 3.2 beta installation and only very infrequently boot to the DOS/WFWG 3.11 partition.

Programming consists of writing code and compiling it, and very little of this is required to effectively use Linux. Although many applications are distributed as source code, the source code in most cases require very little modification. Compiling source code, moreover is not as complicated as it might seem. One command, "make" can usually accomplish this compilation and the advice to inspect MakeFiles can largely be ignored(I probably should be horsewhipped for the previous statement, but in my experience it's nonetheless true.). There is no doubt that the Linux experience is enhanced by programming ability. Linux does lend itself to source code modification, which is part of the reason that its development and bug fixes have been so rapid, and continuous improvement has been the hallmark of Linux, as well as the whole of the GNU organization.

It might be closer to the truth to consider Linux a hacker's medium, simply because "hacker" means different things to different people.I do not consider myself a hacker, although several MS Windows users have described me that way. "Hacker", "cracker" and "programmer" are, in my opinion often erroneously used as synonyms, by people who haven't acquired computer skills beyond user level.

This myth is probably furthered by manufacturers of the more well known OS, although not necessarily deliberately. Salesmanship requires manipulation of certain facts, and in the case of OS software, this is even more likely to be the case. FACT: There is no perfect OS. FACT: Proponents of any OS tend to misplace that fact, even Linux advocates.

In my own family there exists a conflict of opinion regarding WFWG 3.11 vs. Linux, which in time is growing weaker, with Linux becoming more acceptable to my wife and kids(I have admittedly used subversive techniques to accomplish this goal, such as leaving the computer on all the time, in X). In addition, I made sure to download programs that were similar to ones used by my kids in WFWG, such as xpaint, and Netscape, as well as several games, both SVGALIB, and X. Koules is a big favorite, as is SASTEROIDS, and some while ago I had a flight sim, FLY8111, that was a litle too challenging so it quietly disappeared. I have put the BSD text based games on as an inducement to get my 15 year old foster son to read with some enthusiasm, with moderate success. All I have to do now is find a word processing application that my wife will accept readily, and I'll experience little resistance, hopefully to commandeering the drive that's currently loaded with DOS and WFWG.When I recompiled the kernel, I added sound support, and even though I've had a little trouble installing a sound playing program, the kids and I still make use of a pair of extremely basic scripts based on the drivers README that allow us to record and playback music. My sound card is an old eight bit SoundBlaster so the sound quality isn't great, but I used it to rehearse the song I sang at my oldest daughter's wedding, to good effect.

Earlier, I stated that I'm not really capable of writing a decent shell script, but very simple scripts similar to DOS batch files can be written by nearly anyone, and examples of scripts abound on many sites, so keystroke saving measures are available to any one who cares to try their hand at it. The Linux Gazette, in particular has provided me with plenty of template like scripts from which I have learned what little I know about more advanced scripting.

Linux advocates need, in my opinion to show patience with new users to a greater degree than is currently the fashion. Banter among the initiated has camaraderie value, but often puts off the prospective Linux convert. When I was investigating Linux, I was told by one respondent to my usenet posting "Do not meddle in the ways of wizards for their ways are subtle and quick to anger." Hardly an encouraging statement, but with my temperament it served to strengthen my resolve to show the SOB. I daresay most casual computer users would not respond as I did, however.

For the advancement of Linux I would recommend that you (Linux gurus) choke on RTFM, unless you're sure that the person you are talking to has acquired the skills needed to effectively read those FMs. My experience has shown me that Linux distributions are almost as plug and play as anything MS, IBM, Apple or anyone else has to offer. This provides a jumping off point that will motivate users to learn skills that they previously thought to be beyond them. By drawing them into Linux operation slowly, they may become capable programmers, at which point they will have made it their OS. A programmer's OS.

Copyright © 1997, Mike List
Published in Issue 19 of the Linux Gazette, July 1997